Last night, I went to a gathering of nine wise women.
The night before, I went to a reading by four rebel femme poets. The opening sentence in The Stranger’s review of the reading read (say that five times fast) “This is the most Fuck Trump reading I can possibly imagine.” (Check out the work of Annah Antipalindrome, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s, Imani Sims and Amber Dawn. All amazing.)
Last night I heard those four women read and sing and declare what it’s like to be a woman, now and now and now, even before Trump won, when femme women artists were committing suicide – four last year in Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poem, which brought me to tears. And what it’s like to be femme, even in a queer art community… to be criticized for wearing makeup and for not wearing it, to be proudly feminine and called names and to lose your home and lose people you love. Imani Sims declared herself a queer femme witch and read her wild poems but first she told us that we weren’t allowed to sit quietly and smile, we had to make noise. And Annah Antipalindrome clicked cheap whiskey bottles together and created a loop of layered words and percussion and sang over it “Who do you think you are in those human clothes? You are a fox.” They were bold and sexy and profane and profound and said so many unsayable things and all of it made me feel how lonely and painful it is to be a woman now and how much better it is to not be silent, not be alone, even with all the voices that whisper:
Be quiet and pretty and we won’t hurt you.
But there is no use even pretending that that’s true anymore – and I know that it’s only an adherence to fear and the lucky accident of my birth that I’ve been able to pretend in so many ways for so long.
I can’t go on pretending anymore.
I am afraid, now. I am afraid of having my pussy grabbed. I am afraid of getting pregnant after great sex with my boyfriend and not being able to say I can’t afford to be a mother again. (I recently said to him, “Honey, if Trump’s supreme court overturns Roe v Wade, you are going to have to get a vasectomy.”)
I am afraid of speaking about sex and freedom and misogyny and what real happiness looks like for me and being silenced or punished for it, when I am already on the edge.
But I just can’t pretend anymore.
This came up at the gathering of the wise women. We were reading tarot cards, each of us drawing cards: one for now, one for the challenge, one for the outcome. Three cards before each seeker and the other eight of us leaning over the table to see. We saw for each other and it seemed to me that as each women opened and spoke and heard that there was a hum there, more than us, like maybe our ancestors sat on our shoulders and possibly even sang a little bit.
It was them or Steven Tyler, who I know is not dead, but perhaps the undead nature of classic rock gives him special dispensation? Something happened when it came my turn.
I was asking about freeing my voice. I haven’t been able to write. Or rather, I’ve been writing, but stopping short of speaking, of sharing, of being heard. Of the courage I saw last night.
I was asking about freeing my voice and when I touched the deck that feeling came, the one that sometimes takes me, like my hands know the truth. I cut the deck in three places, my fingers sliding between the cards, warm knives through butter.
Three cards. Now is the Queen of Swords. “I always get this card,” I say. But this is not my deck, it belongs to Kristina and this queen is different than mine. This queen stands with one breast bared and swords in both hands, one sword raised straight up up, one firmly down. “She is the truth,” Kristina says.
Next to the queen lies The Challenge. It is the five of coins. The beggar, locked outside the church. She is limping, bandaged, alone. Kristina points to her, says “Fear that there isn’t enough, fear of being outcast. Fear of having to beg.”
I am laughing and shaking my head.
“What is it?” says someone across the table.
“That’s my fear of not paying my mortgage,” I say. “I’ve been shutting down my voice for years because of that.” I see a couple nods. Lisa chuckles quietly next to me. She knows this fear of mine, knows it has been gnawing my heart with frostbite teeth, a winter wolf. Two other women rise and come stand behind me. I am surrounded. All this strength in this room, but its not the strength of knowing it will be okay. We don’t know that. I feel that I’ve never been less sure of it. No, the strength of not pretending, here, all together. Of not keeping that silence.
“See? She is afraid, but she is surrounded by coins. Ella, it’s not real. It’s just a mud puddle. You can step out of it.” Kristina points to the third card, my outcome card, the seven of wands. Seven torches, but only one torch bearer. The rest of the torches are offerings to the one, held up by invisible bearers: Here, take this too, hold it high.
“This card is Victory,” Kristina says. “They are all trusting you with their fire.”
And that’s when the woman with the green scarf who has been sitting across from me all night looks at me. I don’t know her name. She doesn’t know mine either. “Ella?” she says. I nod. She nods back. “I don’t know you,” she says. “But I like the green streak in your hair and the green necklace and you said you are a writer. And you went to see poets last night?” She pins me with her eyes. I nod again. “You are a writer,” she says. It bores into me. She goes on “And I agree with what you said earlier. We can’t not say things anymore. And I think that you should write. You should write.”
I am nodding back. I feel compressed and bright and separate and held in place. I feel the blockage in my chest that says Don’t speak. I feel the words that want out.
“Yes.” I say, but it doesn’t sound like I mean it, even to my own ears.
“You should write,” she says again.
“Yes,” I say again, and Lisa, and Kristina and Rhonda and Deb and Jan and this table full of women looks, waiting as I keep saying it, keep forcing it out until I finally just open my throat and let my voice out.
“Aaaahhhh!” I say.
“Aaaahhhh!” one says back, and then another. They are letting their voices out too, even as they are supporting mine…
And then something strange and wonderful happens, because then Kristina leans over and taps the Queen of Swords and says “Look at her!” Now her voice is bright and fierce. “That’s you!” She leans toward the circle and there is a light in her eyes. “And she is saying… she is saying…” Kristina hesitates and then the words burst out. “She is saying ‘Steam on! Steam on!’ ”
We are all looking at her. What?
“Steam on!” she says again.
All around the table, we are starting to laugh. We can’t help it. Steam on? But Kristina is shaking her long silver and gold hair, like it’s a thought she can’t get free of. “Isn’t there a superhero who says that? You have to just…” and she raises one hand to the sky and points the other down and suddenly she is the Queen of Swords. She is mighty and shakes her head again. “Steam On!” she cries.
“Steam On!” someone else cries and we begin to laugh, that kind of laughter that won’t stop, but builds when you look up and catch someone’s eye and start laughing even harder and it builds in waves, in fits. We are helpless with it, bent over and gasping. “Steam On!” we call out. And it feels like this is mine, yes, it is my battle cry, but it is also the cry of every one of these women, and the rebel femme poets last night and the women across the country who, like me, don’t know how to be safe anymore… all the women writers and singers and mothers and sisters and voices who won’t be cold and small anymore. “Steam ON!” we cry. And across the table, Rhonda says, “Isn’t that a song?” And then I know that we have crossed a border into a strange land and maybe the classic rock undead have indeed joined our circle because she starts singing “Steam on, Steam on, Steam on until our lives come true…” to the tune of Aerosmith’s Dream On. She doesn’t know that this is the song I learned to be bad to on the backroads of Arizona. She doesn’t know this is my soundtrack of breaking the rules. And Lisa and I chime in with the chorus “Steam ah-on! Steam ah-on! Steam ah-on! Steam ah-on!” We are all laughing and singing and someone calls for T-shirts with pictures of steaming irons on them and it feels so good that you just want to live in it and not fuck it up by saying the absolute wrong thing.
Which is when the first test comes. You want to free your voice? You want to say the unsayable? Okay, you got it.
Because it is at this moment that Lisa says “It’s interesting that it’s ‘Steam on’ since you write about sex so much.” And the woman with the green scarf and piercing eyes says “Oh, you write about sex?” with a big smile and there are laughs and these circles are coming together and Steven Tyler and the Queen of Swords are untying the knot in my chest and I just.. Well, I can’t help myself. It bursts out. I speak of the moment the night before when poet Amber Dawn called for us to have pride in being wild and sexual by taking back a word that has been used to keep us so quiet for so long. She was reading a poem about the names of groups – a murder of crows and so on — and she looked up and said to us “You know, I’ve been wondering for a long time, what should we call a group of sluts?” And the answer rose in me instantly. “A slick!” I said. And I was in the front row. “Did everyone hear that?” Amber said. “A slick of sluts! A slick! I love it,” she said.
So, I tell this story. I say the words “slut” and “slick” out loud in this nice living room.
Did I mention that I just met these nine women tonight?
As I say the word “slut,” I feel a little shock go through the circle. We don’t say that word to each other in polite circles. And inside me, I feel that old fear creep in: Why did you say that ?!? Shut up, Andrews!
You will be outcast. You will be alone.
No. That is just a mud puddle. It isn’t real.
I pick up the Queen of Swords and clutch it to my chest. I tuck it against my heart and they smile at me and laugh kindly and I try to breathe through the discomfort, and believe that it will be okay. Not because I am given permission by these women to say that bad, bad word – though I think I am. But because I didn’t let shame silence me this time.
This is not a time to pretend anymore. There are so many walls we have to crumble now. So many ways that we are being kept from our voices, our powers and choices, our ways back to love. And while we are on the subject of sex and silence, I just want to say that while sex isn’t the only way that women can be powerful, I do believe that women who are turned on are much harder to hold back. I do believe that the power to be feminine and alive and beautiful in our own eyes and to our own ears – however that looks and sounds, with makeup, without, sexy and wild and straight and queer and loud and steamy… This is a super power. It is an anthem that plays to the music that we know how to be wild to. We don’t necessarily have to bare one breast. But we could raise one hand to the sky for the sake of our own voices, and point the other at the ground for this place, this time, when there is no pretending anymore.
And say it. Out loud. “Steam ON!”
(And maybe we want to say “a slick of sluts” too. Try it. It really rolls off the tongue.)